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U.S. top court rebuffs mystery company in Mueller subpoena fight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a bid by a unidentified company owned by a foreign government to contest a grand jury subpoena related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s now-completed inquiry into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, though the justices’ action does not force the firm to comply.

The U.S. Supreme Court building is pictured in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

A federal judge has imposed an ongoing fine of $50,000 a day against the company, which had asked the justices to hear its appeal of a December lower court ruling that upheld a judge’s decision to hold it in contempt for refusing to fulfill the document request made in the subpoena.

The Supreme Court rejected the appeal in a brief order with no noted dissents from any of the nine justices.

Mueller submitted a final report on his findings to U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Friday. On Sunday, Barr said Mueller did not find a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

The case has remained a high-profile mystery, with the Supreme Court and lower courts declining to identify the company, the country that owns it or the specific purpose of the subpoena. The company has said it was a witness – as opposed to a suspect – in Mueller’s investigation.

Court filings show that the company has a U.S. office, though it has said it possesses no relevant documents in the United States. Court papers detailing its legal arguments have been made public but all information about the specific facts of the dispute are redacted.

The Supreme Court in January refused to put the lower court ruling on hold. According to court filings, the daily fine imposed by U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell started accruing on Jan. 15, so the company could now owe more than $3 million. Such fines accrue until the grand jury is no longer sitting. It is unknown whether the grand jury has completed its work.

The subpoena was issued in July 2018. Howell in September ordered the company to comply.

The legal question is whether the company is protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a law that allows foreign countries to avoid being sued in U.S. courts. The law does not cover commercial activities. The company argues that this law protects it not just in civil cases but also in criminal cases. The company also argued that foreign governments are immune from contempt findings in U.S. courts.

Lawyers for the company said in the court papers the lower court ruling it is contesting “would wreak havoc on American foreign policy – possibly alienating U.S. allies, undermining diplomatic efforts, and inviting reciprocal treatment abroad for American agencies.”

On behalf of Mueller’s office, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, asked the justices not to take up the case, deeming the lower court rulings correct.

The redacted court filings showed that the investigation involved in the case was the Mueller probe. Mueller neither concluded that Trump unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe, nor did he exonerate him of obstruction.

Mueller charged a series of Russian individuals and three Russian companies. The conviction of former Trump campaign chairman involved his concealment from the U.S. government of millions of dollars he was paid as a consultant to pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians. Manafort has been sentenced to 7-1/2 years in prison in two criminal cases brought by Mueller’s team.

Trump denied collusion and obstruction. Russia denied interfering in the election

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a Dec. 18 ruling that was not made public until Jan. 8, concluded “there is a reasonable probability the information sought through the subpoena here concerns a commercial activity that caused a direct effect in the United States.”

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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